New video chat product makes it easier to keep in touch with elderly family members

When Marcy Behling’s health started to decline, she made the decision to move from her home in the Milwaukee area to Michigan where she lived with one of her children, and eventually entered a skilled nursing facility.

For her friends and family members who live in the Milwaukee area and other places across the country it was extremely difficult, and expensive, to plan trips to visit her. Nevertheless, Josh Silldorff, founder and chief executive officer of Milwaukee-based Brightlife Innovations, used to visit her on a weekly basis when Behling lived at home.

It’s a situation that many people face every day. Silldorff sought a better way to keep in close contact with elderly family members who live far away in senior living facilities. In June, Brightlife Innovations released its EasyConnect HD, an easy-to-use video chat product and service for senior living communities

“It really was innovation born from frustration,” Silldorff said.

Silldorff, along with his business partner Jeff Behling who is also Marcy Behling’s son, worked with a team of California-based engineers to create a simple, remote-controlled platform that would allow senior residents of nursing facilities to video chat with their loved ones back home.

“During my research, I realized these senior living communities offer lots of different types of amenities to their residents. While the people employed at these facilities are nothing short of amazing, the one thing they can’t do is bring their families to them or make it easier for their families to visit,” Silldorff said. “I wanted to make that easier.”

EasyConnect HD allows residents to use a remote control device to tab over large photographs of their loved ones. According to Silldorff, a simple click of the button will connect them to a scheduled Skype video call with friends and family at their homes or on mobile devices anywhere in the country.

“Our original design was a simple touch screen interface, but we realized even that didn’t meet the needs of the end user,” Silldorff said. “We had to design the device similar to something they already knew how to use; a television remote.”

EasyConnect HD is designed to be accessible to every resident in a senior living community, Silldorff said. Facilities can pay a small subscription fee for the EasyConnectHD device, similar to how a cable provider operates, and friends and family members pay a membership fee to have a password protected account on the service.”

“Our goal is never to charge residents,” Silldorff said. “By us maintaining ownership of the device including maintenance and upgrade costs, it takes some risk away from the facility and becomes a less expensive option for the facility.”

Silldorff has already installed an EasyConnect HD device at a senior living community in Manitowoc and is currently working with Milwaukee area Capri Communities on installations in their facilities in the Milwaukee area. One of those facilities is Wilson Commons in South Milwaukee.

“We are always looking for ways to improve the quality of life for our residents,” said Jen Kessel, director of operations for Capri Communities. “Families tell us how they wish they could visit more, and residents are so much happier when they get to see their family.”

The residents are amazed at how easy the EasyConnect device is to use, Kessel said.

The EasyConnect HD device can be installed in a variety of different ways. There is a mobile cart unit, which can be moved from room to room, a stationary phonebooth-like unit designed for use by all residents in a room specifically for video calls, or it can be installed directly in resident rooms, much like a cable provider box would be.

“We’re able to work with the facility on what works best for them,” Silldorff said.

The system works with the facility’s existing internet connection either wirelessly or through an ethernet connection.

With changes in Medicaid and Medicare reimbursements and impending health care reform, budgetary concerns have some nursing home and skilled nursing facilities already in number crunching mode. Silldorff has designed the EasyConnect HD to not be a significant financial burden for these facilities and instead, be an amenity that would be advantageous in the marketplace.

“We realized very early on that extra money doesn’t exist in this environment,” Silldorff said. “For us to put it out there without thinking about the fact that these facilities wouldn’t have the money to make a purchase like this, would mean we failed at our mission of connecting these residents to their families. That’s why there are no upfront costs for the facilities and we’re dedicated to keeping the subscription cost down.”

Since the product is still in its initial launch, Silldorff did not want to disclose subscription prices.

Brightlife Innovations plans to take the EasyConnect HD device and create an even more mobile model that can be used with in-home care residents and their caretakers.

“The possibilities are endless,” Silldorff said. “We do know that one of the number one things that makes (senior living community residents) happy is interaction with their loved ones. Even if a family member wanted to visit every day, sometimes busy lives, long distances and expensive travel can make it difficult to schedule visits at all. EasyConnect HD can help bridge that gap, and improve the quality of life for the residents as well.”

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